ARE the views better from Tower Hill or Lyle Hill? While the debate has been raging among Gourock residents for generations, visitors to the town are left marvelling at how spoilt for choice they are for panoramic views of the Firth of Clyde.
Gourock itself retains the Victorian charms of its past life as a bustling seaside resort, while offering contemporary young families and empty-nesters an enviable quality of life.
There is plenty to see, do and taste for day trippers and weekenders, too, and it’s all just 40 minutes from Glasgow.
Taking its name from the Gaelic word for “pimple”, in reference to the hill above the town, Gourock was originally a small fishing village which grew up around herring curing, copper mining and ropemaking. Duncan Darroch, who had made his money from slave plantations in Jamaica, became the laird in 1784.
The town’s fortunes gained a significant boost with the arrival of the railway in 1889, after which Gourock developed into a genteel holiday destination, gaining particular popularity with well-to-do Glaswegians. The attractive stone villas around West Bay and Tower Hill were built around this time, and residents enjoyed attractions such as the yacht club and golf club.
This “doon the watter” resort was also famous for its outdoor swimming pool, first built in 1909 then rebuilt in 1969; visitors still flock there during summer.
These days, tourism remains a big industry, and the town is increasingly popular with commuters. Famous former residents include the late artist George Wylie, late novelist Iain Banks and traditional music broadcaster Fiona Ritchie.
What to do
My favourite way to arrive in Gourock is by ferry from Kilcreggan, but it’s true that the train is more straightforward. Look out for the lovely pictures of old Gourock at the station. Or, if you’d rather walk into town from the east, jump off the train at Fort Matilda and walk the last mile or so via Cove Road and Battery Park, which nestles between Gourock and its bigger neighbour, Greenock. The views over Cardwell Bay are quite something.
Art and design aficionados won’t want to miss Old Gourock and Ashton Parish Church, on Royal Street, which dates back to 1832 and features a pulpit and panels designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Pretty Gourock Park, near the centre of town, was gifted to the people of the town by the Darroch family and contains their mausoleum.
Kempock Street, just a few minutes from Gourock station, has come alive in recent years with independent shops, galleries and cafes. Don’t forget to make a detour up the stairs to the ancient Granny Kempock Stone on the hill above. In 1662, local woman Marie Lawmont was burned for witchcraft after she supposedly danced round the stone on the Sabbath. The graffiti on the stone dates back hundreds of years.
The George Wyllie Memorial Garden on Shore Street, with its lovely trees, shrubs and benches, is a beautiful and peaceful place to spend an hour. Plans are afoot for a new gallery celebrating the artist – whose iconic paper boat sailed from Glasgow to New York in 1990 – as part of a multi-million-pound visitor attraction in Greenock.
The aforementioned outdoor pool, on Albert Road, is closed for the season and doesn’t re-open till May 2020. But on a sunny day it really is quite glorious, not least because the water is heated to a balmy 29 degrees.
According to Jen Johnston, Jim Brown, Gerry Maguire and Rose MacDonald, no trip to Gourock is complete without climbing up Tower Hill. “My favourite spot in all the world,” says Rose, who has been going on holiday to Gourock for more than 50 years. “Other people say Lyle Hill is better, but they’re wrong!” Decide for yourself by visiting both. Lyle Hill, in Greenock, named after the famous sugar producer who later merged with Tate, is the site of the Free French Memorial dedicated to the French soldiers who fought in the Second World War. It also has spectacular views not only across Gourock, but to Arran, Glasgow and beyond.
For a lovely walk on the flat, resident Jen recommends starting at Kempock Street. “Head west along the Victorian promenade, from where you can follow the pavement route past Gourock Golf Club to Western Ferries (where you get the car ferry to Dunoon) and keep going to Cloch Lighthouse, Lunderston Bay and eventually Inverkip Marina, using the coastal path that’s part of Ardgowan Estate.”
The Cloch Lighthouse is worth a visit in its own right. Designed by Thomas Smith and Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, it has been warning sailors off the dangers of the Gantocks since 1797.
Lunderston Bay, with its lovely sandy beach, is a great spot for a picnic and pictures. At this time of year, don’t be surprised to see snow on the Cowal hills beyond. Jen also recommends stopping off at nearby Cardwell Garden Centre. “It offers plenty to browse at in the dry (heaven forbid it rains in Gourock!) from plants to homeware,” she says. “There’s also an extensive Christmas shop and indoor children’s play area.”
Where to eat
Café Continental, on Kempock Street, is an institution in the town, having been in the family of the co-owner Roland Toma for 120 years. For the last 35 it has offered chic interiors, great food and the bistro vibe that remains popular with locals and visitors alike. Says Jim Brown: “Get yourself a coffee, a slice of cake and a seat at the back, where you can see all the way to Kilcreggan.”
Jen Johnston is a fan of the nearby Kai Smokehouse. “It’s a really interesting addition, serving pulled pork, ribs and grilled meat alongside tasty sides and fresh bread,” she says.
“Kempock Street also has great takeaway options, including fresh and delicious pizza from Nico’s, and traditional curry from the Taj Mahal.”
The fajitas at My Kitchen are delicious, and if it’s sweet treats and good coffee you’re after, you can’t beat the Bakehouse. The pies are tasty there, too, as is the ice-cream.
Where to Shop
Still on Kempock Street, The Pirate and Bluebelle and is an absolute gem, a gallery and gift emporium with a quite lovely collection of arts and crafts.
Nearby Original Artists also stocks cute gifts and homeware, not to mention gorgeous jewellery, while pop-up shop McGilps changes from week to week depending on which maker, artist or designer hires the space.
Where to stay
River view: Overlooking the West Bay, The Spinnaker Hotel on Albert Road is comfortable and friendly, and locals recommend the pub grub. Rooms from £70.
Historic: Built in 1457, Castle Levan is a unique B&B that promises medieval bedchambers, hidden staircases and even a resident ghost. Rooms from £135.
Cosy caravan: Situated on the hill above the lighthouse, Cloch Caravan Park offers terrific river views, not to mention a newly opened swimming pool, refurbished bar and café. Prices from £435 per week in winter.
What to do nearby
Take the ferry across to Kilcreggan and explore the beautiful Rosneath Peninsula, with its peaceful roads and pathways, exotic plants and gardens, and stunning views across the Firth of Clyde, Gare Loch and Loch Long.
If you’ve got youngsters in tow and the weather doesn’t play nice, the Waterfront Leisure Centre in Greenock has flumes, tyre rides and a wave machine.
In the coming weeks I’ll be visiting Leven, and Mount Florida and Battlefield. I’m also looking for Dundee neighbourhood recommendations. Send your suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org